Sunday, October 19, 2014

Peoria Needs a Warning Label

A month before our trip began, I started having trouble breathing. A lot of trouble. My whole body was uncomfortable and I couldn’t eat as I struggled for air for three weeks. I can vividly remember one morning during that time when I woke up and was able to take two whole breaths. They felt so good and relief flowed through my body. Followed quickly by excitement as I thought I was better. Those two breaths were all I got though as my lungs returned to status quo and I was, once again, physically and emotionally drained.

During those three weeks I had been to multiple doctors. I was constantly out of breath and fatigued. A week before we left for Chicago I saw another doctor. That same day he ran lots of tests and diagnosed me with asthma. He gave me lots of medications that I still take today.

For the first time in almost a month, I could breath. I could cook breakfast without gasping. I could walk without breaks. So I departed for Chicago with the knowledge that I have asthma.

I didn’t know much about my asthma yet. It’s a little different for everyone. What are my triggers? What makes me sick? As the trip progressed I found two for sure: humidity and industrial emissions.

I remember Peoria, where there was a lot of industry, including coal fired power plants. I remember the sour taste of the air, the yellow haze lingering above the city, and the difficulty I had breathing as the air seemed to scour my lungs and exasperate my asthma.

We stayed several days in Peoria to tour and do school visits. My asthma started to bother me a day before we got there. I was breathing the industrial influence before I could even see the buildings.

Every day I woke up worse. Dependence on my rescue inhaler grew. It’s supposed to be taken before exercise and to quickly relieve symptoms of asthma attacks. In the asthma world, the doctors have defined 3 levels. Level 1: Green, all is good. Level 2 is yellow: rescue inhaler is needed, used, and works. Level 3: red. The red zone is when the rescue inhaler does not give relief for four hours.

By day 2 I had already entered the red zone. My lungs felt as if they had a texture. They were coarse, as if they were coated in sand. Sometimes they felt like tiny tubes that don’t want to expand. Other times air moved in and out and it never seemed to be enough; it felt like my lungs didn’t know what to do with the air that I was laboriously and consciously moving through them. Every breath felt like a third of what I needed.

Day 3 in Peoria and my health somehow deteriorated further. Getting out of bed was nearly impossible. I felt disgusting and woke up to the taste of the bitter air. I pulled myself together because when I get up I can get my medicine and we had things to do.

You know when you run or do some sort of exercise and you are short of breath for a couple of minutes as your body cools down? How you feel in those couple of minutes was my existence for the whole day. Just sitting still I could not catch my breath. My energy was draining. I talked less, out of discomfort. Talking took too much air and energy. My whole body was run down.

Emotions were welling up in me. I was a swirl of frustration, desperation, helplessness, and fatigue. Not everyone considers fatigue an emotion but I do here as it took its place in the confusing mix of feelings that were tearing up my eyes. For hours I worked to keep from crying as those emotions demanded my attention. I kept reassuring myself that I would be ok, I can do this, and that we were leaving the next day.

This whole time we had been camping north of Peoria and driving in for our visits. This is important because that meant that we still had to paddle through the heart of the industrial air waste.

Worn ragged, physically and mentally, I jumped into my canoe ready to paddle away to cleaner air. That paddle day was awful. We went by a large scale distillery and were surrounded by the aroma of fermentation. We paddled by something that made the air taste and smell sharp. I struggled with that one a lot. I held my breath for a bit so I would breathe in less of the pollutants. One of the places we passed smelled like someone ate Play-Doh and corn, then threw it up.

Both sides of the river banks were developed with industrial buildings. I remember thinking that the view of the river was better than from the river.

The day after leaving I already felt improvements in my health.

The night before we left Peoria we met with Laurel, a Field Organizer for the Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance. They are concerned about the air and water quality in the Peoria area. She told us about the health struggles in the area as a result of high pollution levels. She explained that Peoria was in a “non-attainment” county. Meaning the county doesn’t have to meet existing air quality standards set by the EPA. I finally realized why I was having so much asthma trouble. Air quality standards are set to protect people. We had entered into a county that didn’t require their coal plants to abide by EPA regulations. Laurel explained that the exemption will last for a couple of years. The local coal plant had just changed ownership and, based on financial reasons, won’t be required to meet standards for a while. So the plant currently dumps 5 million gallons of polluted water into the river every day and 200 lbs of mercury a year. Sulfur Dioxide emissions have exceeded safe breathing levels. As a result, the community experiences high rates of cancer and asthma.

My heart aches for all the people that live in this area. Coal plants provide jobs and energy; two very vital aspects of our daily lives. But another vital aspect is clean air.

A compromise is possible. And not only possible, needed. There are many ways to provide jobs, energy, and clean air. One option is to update the coal plant so that less pollutants find their way into our atmosphere. The coal plant could also be switched to a cleaner energy source.

I went into this trip expecting to learn about the river and watershed. I not only gained an appreciation of that, but also a deeper understanding about air quality and industry. About the people on the river. About their homes. I hope they work out a compromise soon for a cleaner, thriving world and community. 

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